The first time I took kids to major college football and basketball games, they could hardly contain their enthusiasm.
In 2002 my son, nephew and I watched DePaul University’s basketball team defeat Louisville before a standing-room only crowd at All-State Arena in Rosemont.
The previous fall, we sat inside Northwestern University’s Ryan Field watching the Wildcats battle top-ranked Wisconsin. All huddled together eating hot dogs and downing hot chocolate, I was in sports heaven.
With college football and basketball season approaching, I can’t think of anything better to promote a sports families’ togetherness than getting in the car and making the trek to experience the passion and energy that is big-time college athletics.
From football at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium to the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University, and basketball from Arizona’s McKale Center to Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, there are a myriad of places to capture the flavor of major college sports.
For time and proximity’s sake, I’ve compiled my list of the best places within a reasonable driving distance.
Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee. It takes about seven hours without bathroom breaks to get to Knoxville, so you might want to plan this one in advance. Once you view the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains in the distance and the calm waters of the Tennessee River next to the gigantic stadium, you’ll acknowledge you’re in a special place. Many a pre-game party can be found on the river. Young fans will be mesmerized at more than 100,000 people dressed in orange cheering the Volunteers. Knoxville isn’t far from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"One of the best environments around,’’ says former UT defensive back Dwayne Goodrich from Oak Lawn Richards High School.
Notre Dame Stadium. South Bend, Ind., may be a sleepy town, but Notre Dame is really a town by itself. Recent expansion puts the stadium seating at just more than 80,000. When the band plays the ND fight song as the team enters the joint, chills run down your spine. Only an hour and a half drive from Chicago, the history of the program and this world-famous Catholic university can be felt everywhere. Don’t get put off by the fact that every home game since 1964 has been sold out. Scalping is legal in Indiana and game day tickets can be found in town and neighboring watering holes.
Camp Randall Stadium at the University of Wisconsin. It doesn’t get any better than Madison, a town surrounded by lakes with the cool football stadium sitting on the hill. More than 80,000 people regularly pack this old gathering place, sing "On Wisconsin" and pass fans through the stadium like they were rolling logs. Everyone stays afterwards for the Fifth Quarter, a concert played by the UW Band. "A surreal family experience,’’ says UW alum and Oak Park resident Dean Marks.
Ohio Stadium at Ohio State University. The famed "horseshoe" on the banks of the Olentangy River is one of the most recognizable stadiums in the county, seating more than 100,000. Columbus is a little less than six hours from Chicago. Be prepared, OSU fans get a little nutty, especially when hated Michigan comes to town.
Assembly Hall at Illinois. From the outside it looks like a combination of a turtle shell and a spaceship. Inside, it’s loud, especially with the Orange Crush student section court side, dark and intimidating. It was already a great place to see games before the Fighting Illini’s magical run to the NCAA championship game in 2005. Now the Hall, about two hours away, is frantic. Its circular setting reminds you of a Greek theater. According to former Iowa and current New Mexico coach Steve Alford, it’s the best place to see a game in the Big Ten.
Assembly Hall at Indiana. If you are lucky, you can get bleacher seats in this 17,000-seat arena that looks like a concert hall from the outside. The building has character and its vertical seating gives it a "pit" type of feel. Working as a reporter in Indianapolis, I took several kids from my apartment complex to a game against Purdue. Two of them said they couldn’t hear for days. It is about four hours away.
Allen Fieldhouse at University of Kansas. Named for legendary coach F.C. "Phog" Allen, it looks like a school from the exterior with its old bricks and windows. Inside, it is a true field house—hot, bright and very loud with banners hanging prominently. The 16,300 seats are right on top of each other and the place actually looks too small to hold that many.
"What St. Andrews in the UK is to golf Phog Allen is to college basketball,’’ says ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas. Located in Lawrence, about 30 miles from Kansas City, it is about an eight-hour drive from Chicago. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, is buried in Lawrence.
Bernard Harmon is a Chicago-based writer, personal trainer and personal chef who competed in athletics at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He has a 12-year-old son, Taylor, who’s dying to check out all these venues.